Paris – There was a moment in the French presidential campaign last year when Emmanuel Macron took a big risk.
The centrist candidate had travelled to his home town of Amiens in northern France to meet trade union leaders from the US-owned Whirlpool factory.
The company’s bosses planned to shut their French operation and move it to Poland where costs were lower. Hundreds of local jobs would be lost.
While Macron listened to the concerns of union leaders in the town centre far from the factory, his main presidential rival, the far-right anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen, turned up at Whirlpool to the delight of the striking workers who posed for selfies with the woman who promised to save their jobs from what she said were the claws of Europe and globalisation.
Macron had a choice: face being politically upstaged and appear out of touch, or show courage, take a gamble and play to win. Macron chose the latter.
The dramatic images of Macron wading into a crowd of furious workers at the factory, engulfed in the smoke of burning tyres, made waves in France.
Macron tried to convince the strikers of his vision: that France needed to adapt to a changing world. He may not be able to save old industry if elected, he said, but he would invest in workers’ futures with training schemes and new opportunities.
It is unlikely Macron’s vision convinced many at Whirlpool that day but his frank approach had won respect.
The gamble had paid off.
Courageous or arrogant
One year into his presidency it is clear that Macron’s Whirlpool moment was not mere electioneering but emblematic of his style.
He is uncompromising in his beliefs and fearless in tackling his critics. It’s an approach seen as courageous or arrogant depending on one’s perspective.
Where most voters agree is on Macron’s international record.
Opinion polls suggest people are pleased he has raised France’s profile, with air strikes in Syria, planning reforms for Europe or taking a lead on climate change or the Iran deal.
A proponent of multilateralism, he says France must talk to everyone.
His friendship with the US president, though, has yet to yield much.
“When you measure the results there are different questions on the Iran deal, on trade tariffs, on climate, these are areas where Macron’s vision has not prevailed, at least, not for now,” says Politico’s Nicholas Vinocur.
At home, Macron’s supporters say he is leading a revolution.
In a country long suspicious of change and governed by left and rightwing politics, he has exploded the political landscape, shattered the conservative and socialist parties and pushed ahead with reforms.
He says the key to creating opportunity and reducing France’s high unemployment is to grow the economy and attract investment.
“You can’t redistribute wealth before having created it,” said Jerome Dubus, a Paris councillor with Macron’s party.
“So he has firstly chosen to encourage French economic growth before redistributing. People think he’s doing it for the rich, not the poor, but in reality it’s for everyone”.
A tech start-up hub in Paris called Station F could be a model for Macron’s vision of France.
Appropriately it opened the year he was elected.
You can’t redistribute wealth before having created it
Jerome Dubus, Paris Councillor
The enormous renovated depot is home to hundreds of tech workers plugged in to the future.
Alexander Bregman is CEO of Invitly.co, a social network application for business travellers. He says France is an exciting place for entrepreneurs.
“When Macron came in and Station F opened and we saw a big shift in French start-up world … and that was the reason for me to stay in France and build my company,” Bregman said.
Protests and strikes
Not everyone feels at home in Macron’s France, however.
Many people who already struggle to make ends meet or are jobless fear things are getting worse.
“He is the ‘president of the rich’,” sneered the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon during last year’s campaign. The moniker has stuck.
Since March there have been street protests and strikes in France against Macron’s reforms.
They are being led by rail workers with public-sector workers and students. Protesters say he is destroying rights and his social policies target the most vulnerable.
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“He is on the cover of the bosses’ magazine Forbes; he wants to liberalise everything and cut our salaries,” one protester said at a recent march in Paris.
Trade union leaders say they will keep demonstrating until the government drops its reforms. Macron says he will not back down. The social movement could be his greatest test so far.
“If Macron fails, the remainder of his presidential term will be tarnished with a huge failure,” IPSOS analyst Stefan Zumsteeg said.
“But if he succeeds he will be seen as someone who was capable of doing what he was elected to do, that’s reform the country.”
So far public approval for the strikers is falling. But Macron has not won his battle yet.
His zeal to reform all parts of society and fast may create more opponents but it is unlikely to deter him.
As he told a French television interviewer last year, ” I’ve never cared about being unpopular”.